Misadventures of the Heart
HE WAS EVERYTHING SHE’D SWORN TO AVOID
Lady Belle Middleton has never followed the dictates of society. She designs scandalous gowns, refuses to marry, wears inappropriate undergarments and answers to no one, most certainly not the dashing and irksome Earl of Westfield.
But Belle hides a dark, perilous secret that can utterly destroy her. The stakes have never been higher and betrayal has never cut deeper and when she comes face to face with her past, who better to protect her than one boorish earl eager to expose every inch of her…
SHE WAS EVERYTHING HE’D EVER WANTED
Simon Tremaine has quite possibly fallen in love. There was only one problem, she believed him a complete bore. How better to show the insufferable tempting woman than to seduce her?
But when a treacherous secret comes to light, friendships are tested and boundaries are drawn. An enemy lurks in the shadows and as desire grows between them, Simon must find a way to keep the threat from separating them forever or risk losing his heart’s only desire.
It was a confirmed fact that when a lady did not court trouble, trouble had a way of courting a lady. At least that was the case for Lady Belle Middleton.
And now that her two best friends, Lady Josephine and Lady Evelyn, were blissfully married—and she remained gloriously unattached—things were just as they should be. For this precise reason, Lady Belle believed quite earnestly that trouble would soon come barreling her way—and not the good kind, she reflected dubiously.
The realization hit her the moment her foot hovered over the threshold of Lord and Lady Chesterton’s annual masked ball. She could not say where the awareness came from, but the force of it was enough to halt her step and make her consider heading for the nearest carriage instead. But Lady Belle was nothing if not brave. And curious.
Her interest sparked.READ MORE
Always too inquisitive for her own good, especially as a child, she’d always driven her brothers mad. Countless times they had been forced to chase her when she decided to inspect unknown places on their country estate. Not even the servant’s quarters had been off limits.
And it was that same curiosity that prompted her to proceed through the front entrance into whatever trouble awaited her on this particular night. Because who is to say that trouble had her in its sight? What exactly was this trouble? Would it be good or bad trouble? Her ever-curious mind could not resist the call that beckoned her to find out.
Boisterous laughter and simpering whimpers reached her as she entered the ballroom. Nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary. In fact, by all accounts, it promised to be quite a marvelous evening. Dancers twirled, enjoying the music, while other ladies and gentlemen flirted outrageously with one another on the sidelines, believing they were safe under the guise of their masks.
Out of habit, Belle felt for her own weapon of concealment, making certain her mask was in place as she waded through the throng of peers.
She spotted a few of Madam De La Frey’s scandalous gowns amongst the crowd, successfully exposing their wearer’s ample charms. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Her own gown was of an equally improper design and exposed much of her skin. Midnight blue silk clung to her corset in a wickedly sensational manner. The material of her mask matched the dark hue of her gown, the intricate silver pattern bringing out the vivid blue of her eyes. Her blond hair was pinned loosely to the side of her head, setting her apart from the rest of the ladies in attendance. She did not fancy the proper styled-to-perfection look that most ladies preferred.
She did, however, delight in evenings such as these where intrigue was almost a certainty and enticing flirtations were as rampant as the smiles of gentlemen. Of course, the evening was only improved by the fact that everything was accompanied with a dash of inappropriate behavior. It was, after all, why any hostess would host such an event.
She smiled coyly at a young lord as she passed him, letting her gaze travel over his horrendous orange jacket in interest before she winked at him.
At the same time, and with no warning whatsoever, unease rippled from the root of her head down to her delicate toes.
At first, her trepidation appeared to be nothing more than the tightening of muscles, but all at once her breath quickened and her heart started to hammer in her chest. Her body’s reaction to the unseen force should have warned her of the impending distress, but Belle was wholly unprepared for the apprehension that hit her like a reticule filled with stones.
Quite bothersome, the sensation. For she could no more put a finger to its origin than she could place a finger on air. What could it possibly be? The trouble she’d sensed earlier? Unless, perhaps, she was coming down with some sort of ailment?
And just like that, the intrigue of the evening withered to nothing but an uncomfortable turn around the room. In light of this disturbing change, Belle decided to glide over to the nearest potted plant to lurk there until the feeling passed. The plant turned out to be not so near after all. She cared little, hoping to escape the hold of whatever caused her sudden apprehension.
A breath of relief parted from her lips when she finally reached her destination. From her vantage point beside the fern, she had a view of most of the ballroom and could signal for Evelyn and Josephine once they sauntered into view.
Another shiver of awareness caused more uneasiness to tingle down her spine. Her leg twitched and she shifted in an attempt to rid herself of the continued feeling. It felt as if someone was watching her.
“What silliness,” she muttered.
It was a masked ball after all. Everyone would be watching everyone, trying to determine their identities. But still, instinct warned her to remain vigilant.
And that was when it truly hit her.
The impact of her recognition forced the breath from her lungs and a dull roaring filled her mind. If not for one tiny thing, she may have attributed the burning sensation of being watched to the fact that it was a masked ball. She may have shaken off the apprehension.
She might have, if not for that smell.
A woody fragrance of earth and musk combined with a dash of sweetness wafted up to her nose, gently disturbing the air around her. While she hadn’t noticed the smell before now, her body had recognized it the moment she advanced over the threshold. Her senses had warned her of some impending danger, but, as she so often did, she’d ignored the warning.
And even though the fragrance was common enough, it was the sweetness mixed with the spiciness that she’d only inhaled once before. More to the point, she had only ever smelled on one man in particular.
Bile rose in the back of her throat.
“No,” she whispered meekly, her eyes darting between the men in her near vicinity.
But Belle knew better and did not bother to continue to search for him in the crowd. He’d be wearing a mask, rendering him invisible to her eye—if he did not wish for his presence to be known, it would not be. So instead, she took a step closer to the fern.
A sudden thought occurred to her. What if he knew who she was, even with her mask?
No, that could not be.
He believed her to be dead.
The implication of what it meant for her if he had indeed returned was too horrid to contemplate. If he discovered that she was still hearty and very much alive, he’d hunt her down and…crush her.
Belle clutched a hand over her midriff, where the long ragged scar marred her flesh. Sweat formed across her brows. The only thing keeping her from shattering was the knowledge that she was nothing like she’d been four years ago. If he was indeed searching for her, he would be searching of a weak, awkward and easily-deceived nitwit. She wasn’t that nitwit any longer.
Hovering by death’s door had changed her. In those painful moments when she’d believed she was to die, she’d known all she wished to be and everything she’d desired to accomplish, and she’d known it all would perish with her.
It had been unacceptable.
And in her refusal to die with so much undone, she survived. She’d since become stronger, less ignorant and more resolute. Perhaps she was mistaken, perhaps he did not darken these halls as she suspected.
Still, the panic edged its way up her spine.
Before it could burst through her, dampen her skin or God forbid, compress her lungs, she took a few deep breaths to tamp down her alarm. When she turned back to the crowd, she spotted Evelyn’s brother, the Earl of Westfield, enter the room.
Relief made her knees wobble. The frantic beat of her heart sped up even more—not because of some fanciful notion that her heart raced to match the steady beat of his and not because Belle held some minor, misguided affection for him. Oh no, none of that. It was only because Westfield represented a beacon of safety.
He’d been her constant shadow for months on end due to his misguided notion to protect her from…well, whatever he thought she required protection from. With him in attendance, she was as safe as safe can be.
And there was no mistaking that it was him. He stood tall, taller than most, with his blond hair styled to its usual perfection. A handsome face with strong features hid behind his plain black mask. But it was his expressive eyes that affected one most—they were the kind of eyes that at a glance could hold you spellbound or turn you into a puddle.
Yet, he also wore his heart in his eyes. It was why Belle had imagined him a total bore when she first met him. No mystery. And for Belle, it was mysterious, evasive men that held all the appeal. How else was a lady supposed to spend her time other than with a bit of intrigue? Who didn’t love peeling away the layers of hidden treasures?
Westfield, however, did not deserve such an obvious display of flirtation. She could just imagine him dropping to one knee at the bat of an eyelash—he was that much of a gentleman. Except, it seemed, when it came to her. It appeared that he reserved all his scowls for her.
Belle considered him from a distance, her earlier distress nearly forgotten. His black eyes raked over passing gentlemen and ladies alike as he waded through the throng of people, immediately dismissing anyone that held no appeal. The ladies darted him hopeful glances and waved their colorful fans in an attempt to gain his attention, but he appeared oblivious to their ministrations.
Even so, his always-ready smile sat plastered on his face. He was just so dratted happy all the time. Often, it grated on Belle’s nerves, and by “often,” she meant more often than not.
It gave her immense pleasure to know that she, at least, possessed the means to ignite his temper. Though specifically why his laughing eyes always seemed to shoot daggers her way, she did not understand.
Lost in thought, she had little warning her privacy was about to be disturbed until a big shadow fell over her.
“It would not surprise me if your names are engraved on every damn potted plant in England.”
Belle’s surprised gaze flew to that of James Shaw, who came up beside her. She craned her neck to catch the slight display of amusement on his lips. He did not bother to glance down at her but continued to watch the crowd. Alas, he was correct. If notorious plant lurkers were ever identified in such a way, there was little doubt that it would be she, Josephine and Evelyn who received the honor.
“What an utterly ridiculous thought, Mr. Shaw, but how lovely of you to join my potted plant watch-keeping.”
He snorted before murmuring, “You looked troubled, Lady Belle.”
Was that his way of explaining his presence here with her? She shrugged. “I am wearing a mask. How would you know what I look like?” she pointed out.
“Perhaps you are not aware that I’ve made it my utmost goal to decipher the workings of the female mind, especially of those who lurk beside plants.”
“And what have you discovered?”
“I’ve only ever found trouble brewing, which is exactly why I’m here.”
“Just as well, you would never do as a plant lurker.”
James’s boisterous howl caused Belle’s lips stretched into a smile. His laughter was contagious. A mountain of a man, plants would lurk behind him and not the other way around—if plants could lurk, that is. It was troubling, however, that he’d deduced something was amiss even with most of her features concealed. She’d have to do a better job at hiding her fear.
From the corner of her eye, she studied him. James and his brother, Derek, were notorious troublemakers in the ton. It was unclear why society tolerated them, but no one ever questioned their presence there. In fact, everyone just accepted them.
Belle knew the brothers through their assistance with Jo’s charity projects.
“They look happy, do they not?”
Belle followed James’s gaze to where Evelyn and Jo were dancing, enjoying a quadrille with their husbands. She barely refrained from snorting, and a soft unladylike noise escaped her.
“Ah yes, I am plagued by doting couples and doe-eyed stares.”
That did not mean she desired her dearest friends to be any less happy than they clearly were, but by the saints, couldn’t they at least limit their affections to the privacy of their homes or bedchambers?
Belle ignored James’s stare, which was burning holes in the top of her head. How odd that she sensed the exact moment when he frowned, not by stealing a glance at his face, but by the subtle shift of his body. Impossible to miss, even from the corner of her eye.
“You do not agree with me?” he asked.
“On the contrary, I’m waiting in utter fear for the inevitable match-making attempts.”
A chuckle met her statement, but he still appeared unconvinced.
“You are the last of your trio to remain unattached. Dare I ask for how long?” he hinted.
She cocked her head to the side. “I’ve yet to meet a man who can catch me.”
That earned her a loud snort. “I cannot understand why any lady would desire to remain unmarried, but I suppose I can respect it.”
Belle lifted her shoulders in a small shrug. It mattered little what James Shaw thought. At least to her.
The music ended and she waited patiently for her friends to make their way toward them, their husbands breaking away and cutting another path to Westfield, who was paused at the edge of the door opposite to where she stood.
As if sensing that someone watched him, his gaze shot up and locked with hers from across the room. Belle’s cheeks warmed on contact and she quickly angled her face away, though she snuck another peak his way again from the corner of her eye. His gaze had settled on James, the lines on his forehead the only indication of his narrowed regard.
Belle shifted closer to James. Because it had to be done. It must never become known that one look from Westfield possessed the power to reduce her insides to rubble. To her relief, Evelyn and Jo appeared before her, effectively cutting Westfield from her line of sight.
“You should be dancing, Belle!” Evelyn exclaimed in excitement before glancing up at James. “Mr. Shaw, what a pleasure to see you attend such a romantic gathering.”
“With so many unattached young misses,” Jo put in with a wink.
“I am merely here to seek out your treasured company, Lady Jo.”
Her friend harrumphed. “You are such a scoundrel, James, and lucky my husband tolerates you.”
“I play to my strengths, Lady Jo, and St. Aldwyn is lucky to still have his ass attached to his—”
“Let us not get carried away,” Evelyn interrupted with a meaningful look their way.
“No, let’s,” Jo disagreed.
“You wound me, my lady,” James said with a smirk. “Alas, I am merely the messenger. My brother has called for a meeting to discuss an impending project.”
Apprehension returned to the in the pit of Belle’s stomach, but she remained silent, watching her friends with growing dread.
“Why not inform my husband of this meeting? You know how he overreacts,” Jo murmured, the sparkle in her eyes brightening.
James shrugged, his eyes flicking in the direction of the men. “I should have, but chose not to.”
“Oh, James, how terrible you are!” Evelyn admonished.
It seemed a never-ending source of entertainment for James to vex the Marquis of St. Aldwyn and the Earl of Grey, Jo’s and Evelyn’s husbands, respectively. But Belle hardly heard their bantering. The timing of the meeting and her premonition of danger felt all too coincidental for her taste. An urgent gathering meant a risky project lay ahead.
“Belle? Are you all right?” Evelyn asked, her voice laced with concern.
“I am fine,” Belle murmured to her friend. “It’s just stuffy in here.”
“The event is quite the crush,” Jo agreed.
“Your knights in armor are glaring my way. I imagine they blame me for your pale disposition,” James murmured with a wink.
Belle shot him a glare. Her disposition was not weak.
“They are not fond of you, James, but you already knew that,” Evelyn replied.
James chuckled. “I am aware, Lady Evelyn. Their upset is just an additional boon of conversing with you three beautiful ladies.”
“You are incorrigible!” Jo exclaimed with laughter.
Belle’s gaze flicked to the men gathered across the room.
Unable to help herself, she glanced at Westfield. He was indeed glaring at James along with the other two men, all of their gazes sharp. At least, one could only assume they glared by the thin lines of their lips and the hard locking of their jaws. In any case, their distaste was clear.
This distaste greatly disturbed Belle. If they harbored so much discontent for the brothers and their ventures, how did that bode for her should they ever discover what she had done four years ago? The brothers, however unconventional in their ways, helped save people. What she’d done…it skirted more in the way of shameful, unspeakable, unpardonable.
Perhaps she was being overly dramatic. If her tormentor had returned, it might not even be for her. He wasn’t meant to know she even lived. But even so, he still had to be dealt with if he had indeed returned—whether it was for her or not. But how could she go about dealing with the man that left her for dead?
Still observing Westfield, Belle realized that the obvious animosity he, St. Aldwyn and Grey were directing at James Shaw had begun to cause some eyes to wander their way.
“Your husbands are going to cause a scandal if they keep glaring this way,” Belle murmured.
“Oh, don’t be silly! Only speculation would arise from their broodiness, not scandal.”
“Speculation, right. And what will others assume to be the cause of their broodiness, I wonder? Certainly not that Mr. Shaw and I are both unattached.”
James choked on air.
Her friends only chuckled merrily.
Belle narrowed her eyes on them. Of course, it would have crossed their minds. They wished for her to be blissfully married, as well. She rolled her eyes heavenward at their obvious attempt at matchmaking. “Well, I for one would like to avoid such speculation, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Shaw?”
“I do, Lady Belle.”
A smile tugged at her lips at the man’s obvious discomfort. To her friends, she only raised a brow.
“Oh bother! You are no fun!” Evelyn groused.
“I am plenty fun, but I also prefer plenty of discretion in any mayhem I cause.”
And Belle did enjoy stirring up the masses, mostly by designing scandalous gowns under the guise of Madam De La Frey.
“So James,” Jo began, “when is our assignation to take place?”
Belle choked back a laugh.
James shook his head. “Please refrain from using that particular word for our meeting in the company of your husband. I will send the details over tomorrow.”
“Then why did you seek us out tonight if you’re not to inform us of those details now?” Evelyn asked.
“To vex your husbands, would be my guess,” Belle offered.
The smile coating James’s face confirmed her guess to be correct.
“You truly are a beast,” Evelyn said, her eyes dancing.
For a brief moment, Belle felt her spirits rise. In the presence of her friends, it was hard not to forget her earlier panic. That was until the smell of spice and sweetness tickled her nose again.
Her heart sank and she involuntarily glanced around. There was no one near her so her gaze darted to the open French doors. Could it be that a slight breeze had carried in the fragrance?
Ill at ease, she returned her attention back to her friends.
Their eyes sparkled as they laughed at something James said. Would the laughter still be in their eyes if they ever learned the truth of her past?
She prayed she’d never have to find out that answer.COLLAPSE